A modified form of this article was published in Socialist Worker.
(25 June 2014)
“I have the right to not be silent,” a speaker resolutely declared, her amplified words projecting loudly and triumphantly from the Sylvan Theater, a stage directly adjacent to the Washington Monument.
The orator, a formerly incarcerated mother, joined a wide array of fellow speakers at this past weekend’s Free Her rally against mass incarceration and the War on Drugs in Washington, D.C. In total, 30 people, from an enormous variety of distinct backgrounds—ranging from fellow formerly incarcerated mothers, to children and family members affected by mass incarceration, to feminist activists, to poets, to lawyers committed to social justice, and more—took to the podium to share their stories and ideas.
“Free our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, wives,” a speaker cried, in harmonious conjunction with an impassioned crowd. The turnout to the rally was quite inspiring. At any one moment, there were approximately 100 people were present. It is estimated approximately 300 different people came out in total, to learn and participate. Many brought chairs to listen for the whole four hours of its duration.
Discussions of mass incarceration and structural racism in the US “Justice” System tend to revolve around how much men of color, and, in an age of the New Jim Crow, particularly black men, are targeted in the racist “War on Drugs.” It is true that, in white supremacist, patriarchal American society, forms of structural racism—such as New York City’s exceedingly racist “Stop-and-Frisk” policy, or police violence more generally—often conceive of the (young) black male body as the locus of “wrong-doing,” and construct themselves and the State punishment apparatus accordingly. Free Her, however, took a perspective on mass incarceration not often heard: the effect of the prison-industrial complex on women, and their families.
As the prison-industrial complex grows (with bipartisan support), so does the portion of women incarcerated. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of American men incarcerated rose by 15.6%; the number for women rose by 21.6%. Approximately 85% of incarcerated women are mothers. 65% of incarcerated women, vis-a-vis 44% of men, have children who are still minors. 38% of incarcerated women will not see their children until they are freed.
Andrea James, a brave formerly incarcerated mother who shared her story and representative of Families for Justice as Healing, explained “when I went into prison my children were babies, and when I came out they were young adults.” Another speaker noted that a black child is nine times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than a white child. This is a cost of mass incarceration that we often don’t hear about. Yet its effects are most wide-reaching. It was to the articulation of these effects that the Free Her rally devoted itself.
Susan Rosenberg struck a chord here at home. She entertained a beautiful, powerful thought experiment, to more palpably convey the costs of mass incarceration: What would happen if, today, the US government released thousands of unjustly imprisoned mothers? Her answer: They would come home and grow their communities.
Rosenberg, a revolutionary feminist and former member of the May 19th Communist Organization, a coalition formed by members of the Black Liberation Army and Weather Underground, herself spent 16 years in federal prison. Several of these were in the High Security Unit, an experimental underground political prison in which she was tortured with isolation tactics, strip searches, 24/7-surveillance, and sensory deprivation. (The High Security Unit has since closed, as human rights organizations like Amnesty International deemed it “deliberately and gratuitously oppressive.” The American Civil Liberties Union went so far as to call it a “living tomb”). Rosenberg has since become a leading prison abolition activist, and just recently published a memoir, An American Radical: A Political Prisoner In My Own Country, which she was selling at the rally.
When talking about mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, nonetheless, even through the lens of gender, race must be at the center of the discussion; it’s unavoidable. Many speakers drew attention to the elements of extreme structural racism and white supremacy in the US “Justice” System.
Activist Barbara Fair likened mass incarceration to a new form of slavery. “We went from the auction block to the cell block,” she said. Such a statement is not hyperbolic. Striking inmates in the Free Alabama movement have made similar parallels, insisting the US penal system is “running a slave empire.”
Attorney, author, and activist Nkechi Taifa owned the stage with bold words about these egregious systemic injustices. She spoke of the New Jim Crow as a kind of “black genocide.” She noted how the “military-industrial complex has transformed into the lucrative prison-industrial complex,” and offered “kudos to Michelle Alexander,” the Ohio State law professor and activist whose book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has essentially stood as the canonical text on which the contemporary movement against mass incarceration stands. “The US moved from lynchings to mass incarceration. Players change, but the script remains the same—unequal justice,” Taifa insisted. For hundreds of year, Black Americans “have been subject to a double standard of justice.” We must “build up people, not prisons!”
It was this intersectional perspective that marked the entire rally. Demonstrations of solidarity with Marissa Alexander were ubiquitous. Alexander’s case came into the spotlight two years ago, in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman, the man who murdered Trayvon, appealed to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, a law that purportedly exists to allow threatened citizens to shoot attackers in an act of self-defense, but in actuality often serves much more as a “commit a racist hate crime free” card. Alexander, whose husband often abused her and threatened her with violence, raised a gun into the air and fired a warning shot during a fight; she feared for her life, and rightfully, given the man had charged at her saying “I’ll kill you.” Stand Your Ground did not protect Alexander, however; she still stands on trial, and potentially faced 60 years in prison.
Activists also handed out pamphlets to raise awareness about a 16-year-old transgender Latina girl—who, because she is a minor, has been referred to around the country anonymously as “Jane,” or “Jane Doe”—who has been imprisoned in solitary confinement at York Correctional, an adult women’s prison in Niantic, Connecticut. Jane has been in the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) since she was five years old, and has experienced extreme abuse, including trafficking, sexual abuse, drug exposure, and countless physical and verbal assaults. Her story is illustrative of the intense discrimination trans Americans, and particularly trans women of color, must endure at the hands of the US “Justice” System.
Members from the organization Boston Feminists for Liberation spoke too of the struggles of CeCe McDonald, another trans woman of color oppressed and abused by the US “Justice” System, condemning the system for its “transmisogynist hate crimes.” They too drew attention to the case of Cecily McMillan, a 25-year-old union organizer and Occupy Wall Street activist who was convicted of allegedly assaulting a police officer in March 2012. The officer grabbed her breast from behind and she, instinctively, elbowed the abuser in response. The public employee, in a paradigmatic example of how cops “protect and serve” our nation, responded by beating her brutally into a coma. She, naturally, was the one charged for a crime. Fortunately, nevertheless, although she faced seven years in prison, thanks to popular pressure, her absolutely asinine sentence was reduced to (a still obscene) three months.
Although none of the speakers were explicitly anti-capitalist in presentation, activist Tamara Petro, director of the Multicultural Leadership Institute, reminded us that the problem goes even deeper than racism. She insisted we “have to end not only the drug war, but also the prison-industrial complex.” The prison-industrial complex might be fundamentally racist, but it also has its roots in the capitalist mode of production (not surprising, considering capitalism too has its roots in racism). The exorbitant growth in recent years of private prisons around the US demonstrates that prison capitalists have found a new profitable industry, and neoliberal politicians see in them new potential for profit and “job creation” in the midst of floundering local economies—not to mention a means by which to deal with the supposed immigration “problem,” by siphoning unwanted immigrants into for-profit prisons, by illegalizing refugee status and filling empty prison cells with exploitable, undocumented labor.
Petro was pleased at the mélange of organizations represented. “Many people are discussing issues, coming together and speaking out,” she told me. And “each person and group has their own piece of the solution.” Perhaps the most prominent of groups present was Women Organized to Resist and Defend (WORD), a new intersectional feminist organization. They brought with them an assortment of purple signs reading “FREE Marissa Alexander,” “Women’s rights are under attack,” “Say NO 2 Racism & Sexism,” and more. WORD activists also held up a banner reading “Fight the Racist & Sexist ‘Justice’ System!”
The DC branch of the ISO tabled at the event, selling several different radical books (from Michelle Alexander and Assata Shakur, among others) and handing out print copies of Socialist Worker. The DC PSL was also present; its table included signs bearing Malcolm X’s oft-repeated quote “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
“It’s movement-building time!” speaker Ronell Guy enthusiastically declared. The audience, although almost four hours into the rally, was still excited. Our goal is “to build a world where no woman is left in a cage,” the Boston Feminists for Liberation representatives had exclaimed. The Free Her rally asked its audience to take the first steps toward the construction of this world.
Rosenberg explained that, perhaps surprisingly, for her, the “hardest part part of leaving prison are the people you have to leave behind.” The Free Her rally, and organizations like Families for Justice as Healing, who had helped organize it, provide a new community through women who have suffered, and still suffer, from such horrendous systemic injustices can heal, and form new networks of friendship and solidarity.
Much too often, in the history of Western leftist social and economic justice movements, leaders tend to be from disproportionately privileged and educated backgrounds, not necessarily from those shared by members of their mass base. The Free Her rally against mass incarceration demonstrated that the contemporary movement against mass incarceration and the War on Drugs is largely led by those most affected by them. The struggle continues; DC’s Free Her rally was only one step.